Dr. Mary Valenzuela, a longtime Oahu resident, has enrolled her two children, a fifth-grader and seventh-grader, in public schools their entire lives. They spent the last three years at Kainalu Elementary School and attended Mililani Mauka Elementary before that.

So it was no small decision to pull them out of public school before this school year started and enroll them in St. John Vianney Parish School, a small Catholic school in Kailua.

The turning point, said Valenzuela, a family physician, came in July when the Hawaii Department of Education announced all public schools would begin the school year with distance learning and pushed back the start date from Aug. 4 to Aug. 17.

Dr. Mary Valenzuela sits with her daughter Erin (left) a 7th grader and son Kainoa (right) a 5th grader both at the St. John Vianney School on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Dr. Mary Valenzuela sits with her daughter Erin, left, a seventh-grader, and her son Kanoa, a fifth-grader. They moved from a DOE school to St. John Vianney School this year. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

“That’s it, I’m done with this, and all the chaos and disorganization,” Valenzuela said she recalled thinking at the time. “At that point, I started looking at schools that would fit what I like.”

Today, Erin Valenzuela, 12, and her younger brother, Kanoa, 10, have had the benefit of in-person learning at St. John Vianney since July 28. The school had to delay opening by one day, but that was due to the then-pending threat of Hurricane Douglas, not COVID-19.

“I feel like it’s more, what’s the word, organized,” Erin said by phone of her new school. “And I feel like I can learn more because there’s always homework.”

The seventh-grader said students have to wear masks at all times, except when eating. But her cohort is small, at around 12 kids, and they stay put while her teachers move from classroom to classroom.

There are some strict rules in place, such as prohibitions on sharing food or personal belongings, and students must carry hand sanitizer and wash their hands once they come into the classroom.

“It feels pretty regular,” Erin said, adding she made it a point to memorize her peers’ faces when she sees them unmasked. “Once you get used to it, there’s no problem. You just go through the day.”

With DOE schools still doing distance learning due to virus spread concerns, the state’s private schools are becoming increasingly attractive to families looking for some sense of normalcy for their children — and repose from their own harried schedules.

Most of the 100 member schools that are part of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools are now offering on-campus, in-person instruction either entirely or in a blended model, according to HAIS Executive Director Phil Bossert. Kamehameha Schools switched to blended learning earlier this month after the fall break, according to spokesman Darren Pai.

COVID-19 infections have not been a major problem so far. Bossert said he’s only aware of eight reported cases from member schools to date as of this week.

Llewellyn Young, acting superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools, said a key part of bringing students back to campus was ensuring all 33 member schools developed protocols and plans and a response strategy to positive cases.

“We don’t claim to be 100% COVID-free, it’s part of our society now,” Young said. “It’s a question of when, not if, but our schools are prepared.”

There is no definitive way of knowing, at this point, whether Hawaii’s private schools, which enroll 16% of the state’s school-age children, are seeing a noticeable bump in enrollment due to families who are flocking over from the public school side.

HAIS typically does its yearly enrollment count in May, but numbers so far this year show private school enrollment is down by 3% from 33,328 last school year to 32,145 so far this year.

The DOE lost just under 3% of students in the 2020-21 school year. The number of home school opt-out requests is also 43% higher in the first three months of this year than all of last school year.

“The numbers keep changing,” Bossert said, of private school enrollees this year. “The longer DOE keeps its students out, the more parents are seeking in-person learning environments for their children, either with private schools that have a ‘rolling admissions’ policy … or with some of the new home-schooling support centers that are popping up.”

Disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed the disparities that exist between the state’s resources-strapped public schools and private schools, which more often than not have the centralized support, money and coordination to beef up safety protocols or offer smaller class sizes.

And while moving from public to private school is historically not unusual for Hawaii families, especially at key transition points like sixth grade and ninth grade, the lack of in-person instruction at DOE schools due to the pandemic is hastening exits among families who’d never contemplated such an option before.

Dr. Mary Valenzuela sits with her son Kainoa (center) a 5th grader and daughter Erin (right) a 7th grader both at the St. John Vianney School on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
The Valenzuela children have been receiving in-person instruction at St. John Vianney since July 28, with no interruption. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

“If the public schools didn’t do virtual (learning), I would have probably just stayed,” Valenzuela said. “The in-person was key, and also the perk was the Christian education I was looking for.”

About 90% of Hawaii’s 171,000 public school students are doing all-virtual or a hybrid style of learning. A little under 10% of students, mostly in the early grade levels or with special needs, are receiving in-person instruction.

The frustrations felt by parents over prolonged distance learning come amid emerging data that children who are going back to school, especially younger, elementary-age ones, are not spreading community transmission to the degree people feared.

Recent guidance released by the state Department of Health proposes a new rubric for bringing students back to the classroom based on average daily case count and percent positivity rate for two weeks in a row, per 100,000 residents by island.

Based on current percent positivity rates, most islands would qualify for “blended learning” under the DOH guidance, though 15 positive cases reported out of Lanai High & Elementary last week amid an outbreak on that island forced the school to revert to all-distance learning.

Some Hawaii parents, especially those who have other daytime obligations, say bringing students back to school is “doable,” pointing to what private and some pre-schools have done so far.

“It was the longest month of my life and that was after having him all summer,” Kristine Barker said of her first-grader’s distance learning experience before she, too, pulled him out of Kainalu Elementary in early September.

Barker said she made her decision after she noticed that distance learning in her son’s case meant a 45-minute Zoom class with his teacher for the entire day.

“The other 7 hours, 15 minutes were on me to be his teacher,” said Barker, who works from home for her job as a Navy biologist. “They call it distance learning, but it’s in essence home schooling.”

Now, Barker’s son is attending school five days a week at St. John Vianney, where he is “thriving,” she said, even though Barker is not religious and is a self-described agnostic.

“I’m curious what they learn, but overall for him to have face-to-face education, I will deal with the fact he is being taught Catholicism,” she said.

St. John Vianney, which enrolls 170 students in grades pre-K-8, charges $9,000 in annual tuition, which includes lunch. While far lower a price tag than a larger school like Punahou, which charges $27,000 yearly tuition, the financial sacrifice is still not lost on families.

Valenzuela said she’d had enough saved to make the switch. Barker said the extra monthly cost is difficult for her and her husband, who owns his own construction company, but rationalizes the switch by saying the cost of a part-time tutor for her son would be comparable.

For other people, the cost of a private school education right now is just not feasible.

“I would do it in a heartbeat. We just can’t afford it,” Sarah Guay, whose two children go to a DOE elementary school, said of moving them over to a private school.

For her first-grader and fourth-grader, online learning has been a struggle. Her 9-year-old daughter, she said, used to love school and thrived in Kailanu Elementary’s gifted and talented program and chorus but now seems like a different kid.

She’s begun to see a school counselor to help cope with what Guay believes is lack of socialization with peers and positive reinforcement that comes with in-person interactions with a teacher.

“If there’s no plan in place in January (to return to the classroom), we will consider private school,” Guay said. “I don’t know how we will do that, but we will absolutely figure it out if we have to.”

Caryn DeMello, St. John Vianney’s principal, said “the phone calls have been nonstop” since the school year began. Not all are looking to enroll though. Some need to pull out for financial reasons caused by economic hardship, she said.

“Every time we get a phone call, I’ll go into the classroom and see if there is any way we can physically fit another student within 6 feet,” she said.

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